Byline: Tona Kunz Daily Herald Staff Writer
The Rockford Catholic Diocese must allow trial judges to review internal church documents when clergy are accused of crimes, Illinois' 2nd Appellate Court ruled Tuesday.
The court - not the church - gets to make the determination whether to keep information out of the courtroom, justices wrote in the opinion.
The court also ruled that confessional privilege does not extend to panels investigating alleged abuse.
Law experts heralded the ruling as precedent-setting and one that will pave the way to greater transparency in abuse lawsuits against clergy members.
"It brings the church in line with what is required of other organizations," said Rodney Blackman, a law professor at DePaul University. "If you were to substitute a secular organization for the Catholic Church, and it was alleged to have done a cover up, I think that all the internal memos would be subject to discovery."
Kane County Assistant State's Attorney Jody Gleason said the ruling could potentially remove hurdles to prosecution of future cases involving religion organizations.
"We obviously think the ruling is a very good ruling and we are certainly very happy that the public opinion is out there as a precedent," she said.
Diocese attorney Ellen Lynch did not return a call to find out whether the diocese will appeal the decision.
The court said the church must follow the same rules as secular organizations and hand over personnel files, transfer records for church assignments and the results of internal church investigations to a trial judge to decide whether any of the information falls under legal privilege and can be kept out of court.
The Rockford Diocese refused to hand over those documents to the Kane County state's attorney's office in the case of former Geneva priest Mark Campobello, who is scheduled to head to prison Friday. Diocesan attorneys contended that church law required information generated by the church's misconduct investigations remain confidential in order to encourage others to come forward.
The court concluded that church law did not supersede criminal investigations.
"Merely because Canon 489 is controlling the internal operation of the affairs of the church does not mean that it permits evidence pertaining to sexual molestation of children by priests to be secreted and shielded from discovery that is otherwise proper," Justice Jack O'Malley wrote in the opinion.
Similarly, the justices shot down arguments that outside involvement in an internal church investigation is a violation of freedom of religion as set up by the U. …